Major League Baseball will kick off the 2019 season with its earliest start ever (excluding international openers) as all 30 teams will take the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 55 days
The stakes are higher now for Indians’ catcher Roberto Perez than ever before.
This winter’s salary dump of All-Star backstop Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals for reliever Jefry Rodriguez and a pair of minor league prospects opened the door wide open for Perez to stake his claim as the team’s starting catcher, a role that many have touted him as ready for over the course of his five-year big league career.
Recently, concerns about several facets of his game – including his lackluster offensive work at the plate and a decline in his defensive work – have left some wondering how the Indians front office was willing to move forward with a regular catcher who has averaged a .205/.298/.340 career slash in the Majors. The team did acquire catcher Kevin Plawecki from the New York Mets to fill some of Gomes’ shoes, but several low-cost free agent options are still sitting on the open market that could have been more attractive players for the club to consider.
The addition of Plawecki could send last year’s September call-up Eric Haase back to the minors, waiting in the wings there as the top depth option in the organization at backstop.
Dumping Gomes seems like a risky move when considering the lack of offensive production from Perez in recent memory. Gomes was set to make a reasonable $7 million for 2019 and could have become a free agent after each of the next two seasons with team options on his contract. He was owed nearly $30 million over the course of the next three years, so the cash-strapped club looked at his removal as one way to free up funds for the Tribe. The move was all the more curious, however, after the Indians moved their top prospect last July, fellow catcher Francisco Mejia, to San Diego to help rebuild the bullpen for the present and the future.
Now, the 30-year-old Perez will at minimum be expected to split the catching duties. He has played in no more than 73 games in a season, despite being healthy for much of his time in the Majors (he missed two and a half months in 2016 with a broken right thumb that required surgery). While he has had a flare for some big moments in the postseason (he has four homers and nine RBI in 19 playoff games), his overall regular season contributions at the plate have been largely disappointing.
Last season, he scuffled with career worst marks in all three triple-slash categories, hitting .168 with a .256 on-base percentage and a .263 slugging mark. His two homers were his fewest since his debut season in 2014. He struck out a career-worst 33% while his extra base hit contribution dropped nearly 2.5% from the season before. He swung and missed more often than he had in any season and his rate of contact in general dropped more than 5% from his previous career worsts.
The offensive side of the game was clearly not the piece that had kept Perez in the Majors over the course of the last half decade. It was his play behind the plate, not at it, that had led to him serving as a viable backup backstop to Gomes.
Over the course of his first few full seasons in the Bigs, Perez handled the pitching staff well, limiting errors, passed balls, and wild pitches while cutting down base traffic at rates well above league average (he had caught stealing rates of 42%, 50%, and 43% from 2015-2017). Last year, much of that fell apart. He committed a career high five errors (.991 fielding percentage) and did so in his fewest games behind the plate since 2014. He was charged with just three passed balls, which was on pace with previous years, but his wild pitch number of 21 was just one short of his highest in any big league campaign (which could be a result of the number of starts that he caught for Trevor Bauer and his arsenal of pitches with significant and sickening amounts of movement to them). Troubling too was the stark drop-off in his ability to control the foot game of the opposition, as he allowed 27 stolen bases in 36 attempts on the year (a caught stealing rate of just 25%), failing to finish better than league average in the stat for the first time in his career.
Perez in many ways has overachieved in his career, but he remains an important piece to the Tribe’s success. Locked up through at least 2020 with team options for each of the two seasons after that, the former 33rd round pick in the 2008 draft will be needed to do what he had formerly done well – play good defense, call good games, and throw out runners with a far better frequency than he did a year ago. The defensive side of the game has carried him throughout his career and if he is not going to contribute at the plate, he needs to do much better behind it to compensate and rationalize his roster spot. With an Indians lineup that looks to be lacking on the offensive side of things, the team cannot afford to give up easy runs to other teams, and it will be Perez’s job to help limit free bases snatched up by speedier opponents as a means of reducing runs allowed.
Perez has held down 55 for five years for the Tribe, the second-longest stretch in that number by any player in Tribe history.
The man once named Fausto Carmona but more appropriately known as Roberto Hernandez Heredia spent his seven-year Indians career in the number 55. Signed out of the Dominican Republic under false pretenses (both in alias and age), Hernandez reached the Majors in 2006 in his fifth season with the organization. After a good overall showing as a starting pitcher in the minors, Carmona was thrust into bullpen action after just three MLB starts on the way to an awful 1-10 record with a 5.42 ERA. He worked as a seventh and eighth inning option for manager Eric Wedge, who saw his young pitcher lose ten straight decisions after winning his MLB debut.
The next year was a completely different story for Carmona/Hernandez. He took charge and went 19-8 in 32 starts, posting a 3.06 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP while finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young race (won by teammate CC Sabathia). The Indians came a game away from the World Series, and it was possible given the strong breakout from the big right-hander.
Injuries slowed Carmona in 2008 and 2009, but he was an All-Star in 2010 for the first time. He would finish the year 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP, his best numbers since his second season. He could not replicate the numbers the following year, falling to 7-15, and then his world fell apart. He was arrested in the Dominican as he prepared to join the Indians for spring training and was accused of using a false identity to try to obtain a U.S. visa. As a result of the arrest, his real name and age were discovered and he was suspended by MLB for identity fraud.
The runaround would cost him nearly all of 2012 and he would be on the move as a free agent in the offseason. He spent 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays and started 2014 with the Philadelphia Phillies before he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He began the 2015 season with Houston before being designated for assignment midseason and he worked with Toronto’s and Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliates afterwards. He made his final big league starts with the Braves in 2016, earning a win and a loss before being released.
A bulldog of a pitcher took the digits to the playoffs in the glory days of the 90s, continuing a trend of wearing the 55 throughout the majority of his successful MLB career. Orel Hershiser left his longtime home of Los Angeles in 1995 when he signed as a free agent with the Indians. It was a homecoming of sorts for the right-hander, who attended college at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.
Hershiser was well decorated by the time he joined the Indians. A 17th round draft pick by the Dodgers in 1979, he broke into the Bigs with eight relief appearances in 1983. After splitting the following season between the rotation and the bullpen, he latched on to a spot on the starting staff and led all of baseball with an .864 winning percentage, thanks to a 19-3 record in 36 games with a tiny 2.03 ERA. His efforts helped carry LA into the postseason, where they were knocked out in the National League Championship Series by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Two years later, he would make the first of three consecutive All-Star teams. He would also dominate the game in 1988, when he went 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA in 35 starts and was named both the NL Cy Young Award winner and the World Series’ Most Valuable Player after throwing two complete games and one shutout in the Fall Classic against the Oakland A’s.
He joined the Indians at the perfect time, filling the team’s need for an established starter to join Dennis Martinez and the young Charles Nagy on the staff. Hershiser made 26 starts and returned to his old form in his first action in the AL, going 16-6 with a 3.87 ERA for the Tribe as they raced through the regular season with a 100-44 record and earned their first trip to the World Series in 41 years. He was brilliant in the postseason, going 4-1 in five starts with just six runs allowed over 35 1/3 innings of work, and he was named the MVP of the ALCS.
His win in Game 5 of the World Series against Atlanta would be the last postseason win of his career. Hershiser went 15-9 in 1996 and 14-6 the following year as the Indians returned to the Fall Classic, but came away heartbroken in seven games to the Florida Marlins. After the season, he returned to California, signing a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants. He followed it with a year in the Big Apple, making 32 starts for the New York Mets. His career came full circle in 2000, his 18th season in the Majors, when the 41-year-old started the year with his former club, the Dodgers. He lasted just three starts before he was moved to the bullpen and he lost a month on the disabled list. When he returned, he was back in the rotation, but after three straight losses and short outings, he was given his release in the final work of his big league career.
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
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